Few things have increased in price quite like a new pair of 1460 Dr. Martens: the eight hole, yellow-stitch boots cost £2 ($2.71) when they made their debut for the British factory worker in 1960. These days the company’s top-shelf “original silhouette” boot retails for £239—a whopping 120 times the cost of the company’s flagship model at the outset.
The boots’ soaring price tag, outpacing everything from a barrel of oil to an ounce of gold, tells the story of how a simple piece of footwear designed for the working class became an iconic global brand. (If £239 is too rich for you, there are other 1460 models available for around £150.)
It’s become a rare fashion asset that could make Permira, its private-equity owners, a handsome return when Dr. Martens goes public on the London Stock Exchange this year. Permira bought the boot maker for £300 million in 2014 and is set to list the company for £3 billion or more. The offering takes advantage of consumer demand for chunky boots, and investor demand for companies that have withstood the pandemic.
On the latter, Dr. Martens has been seemingly Covid-proof. As stores closed because of the spread of the coronavirus, the company’s e-commerce sales took off, roughly doubling from March to September versus the same period a year ago. Revenue jumped 48% last year to £672.2 million. It marks a stark turnaround for a company that was in a tailspin in the early 2000s because of over-production and changing consumer taste. Dr. Martens says it sells more than 11 million pairs of shoes a year, up from a reported 5 million in 2001.
The storied boots have their roots in post-World War II Munich, where a 25-year-old soldier designed the air-cushioned sole to protect his foot, which, according to the tales, he had broken in a ski accident. Later the Griggs family, which had been making boots in the English Midlands since the turn of the century, bought an exclusive license for the sole in 1960 and rebranded them “AirWair.” Then somehow, incredibly and improbably, the boots burst into a subculture fashion symbol. Over the decades they’ve been a sartorial choice for everyone from skinheads, goths, and punks to mods and social-media influencers (also the preppy who wrote this article).
A thorough transformation
A lot has changed for Dr. Martens since the 1960s, the decade the brand made its mark when The Who guitarist Pete Townshend wore them on stage in 1967. Since then they’ve been promoted by too many influencers to mention, but these days you can find them on the feet of Addison Rae, the TikTok star who reportedly wore a pair in October when she was hanging out with Kourtney Kardashian.
There are other signs of how thoroughly the brand has transformed over the years. The boots weren’t widely exported from the UK until the 1980s, and now 20% of revenue comes from Asia and nearly 40% from the Americas. The company’s first, still operating factory was in Wollaston, about 90 minutes northwest of London; now most of the boots are made in Asia.
The transformation isn’t quite over: This year the boots, which were originally manufactured for postal carriers and bobbies by a family-owned business, and later embraced as a signal of rebellion and proletariat pride, are now poised to make private-equity financiers a bunch of money in an IPO.